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City Wants to Avoid Making Mistake Again

April 18, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

RV park owners in Zephyrhills, Fla., are angry about the city council’s decision last year to charge utility base rate fees on a per-lot basis, even if lots sit unoccupied for several months at a time, The Pasco Tribune reported.

The change went into effect in January and now that snowbirds have left the area, RV park owners say the charge — $14.10 per month for those in the city limits, $19.25 for those outside — is a financial hardship they shouldn’t have to endure.

But besides the dollars and cents of the issue, the area’s RV park owners are angry that they weren’t warned of the change.

“Why weren’t we notified,” Howard Smith, co-owner of Magnolia Trace RV Park called out during the April 11 Zephyrhills City Council meeting.

The answer: Smith and others should have been notified months ago, but they weren’t because of a city oversight.

“We dropped the ball,” City Manager Steve Spina said last week, apologizing for the lack of notice.

In May, the city council unanimously approved the change in how utility base rate fees would be charged to RV parks, doing away with charging only for the lots in use. The change also applied to motels, hotels and apartments.

At the time, council President Lance Smith said those who would be affected by the change needed to be contacted in advance.

On April 11, Spina explained that the utility billing department and the utility department each thought the other had notified the affected parties of the decision. In fact, neither department had done so.

Smith responded to the lack of notification by empathizing with the embroiled RV park owners.

“I’d be mad,” he said.

The situation begs the question: Besides expressing regret, what will the city do to make sure such oversights don’t happen in the future?

Spina said it’s just a matter of the city being more diligent internally.

After each city council meeting, department heads meet to discuss the agenda and follow up on who needs to do what.

He said in the future, perhaps copies of notification letters or other documentation should be requested from individual departments as a way of making sure nothing is overlooked.

“We don’t need to re-create the wheel. We need to be responsible,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s that big of deal internally. I just think that we need to assign things and make sure things are being done.”

Smith said he thinks accountability needs to happen at the beginning of changes that will impact residents, not at the end. That means city staff should figure out ahead of council meetings how many people will be affected by a proposed change. They should also determine how big of an impact a change would have on those involved and gauge customers’ feelings on the issue.

“Probably what I’m going to request from (city staff) before I vote on anything like that again is who will be affected and what they’ve said when they’ve been contacted,” he said. “Internally, I think staff needs to go through that exercise.”

Had city staff done that work ahead of time, he said, RV park owners likely would have come to city council meetings to present their arguments.

“We wouldn’t have the issues we do now,” he said.

Councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson, who at the April 11 meeting emphasized the need for the city to communicate with its customers, said another way to prevent such situations could be to appoint a customer liaison. That person could be someone already employed by the city.

“A logical person would be someone in the billing department. Those are the people more often than not who see customers on a regular basis. I think that’s where that needs to happen. Other department heads would need to be required to report to that liaison,” she said.

She said it could be the liaison’s responsibility to make full use of inserts included with water bills.

“They could be thinking, ‘What can I share with customers today and what kind of response can I solicit?’ ” she said.

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